MAD Lions roared into the League of Legends EMEA Championship’s inaugural Winter Split, racking up the wins and securing a second place spot in the 2023 Winter Regular Season. The Spanish organisation, led by head coach James ‘Mac’ MacCormack, finished up the first phase of the LEC Winter Split with a commendable 7-2 record, having met the jaws of defeat from only an in-form Team BDS, and a Team Vitality squad that has been hyped up for big things.
Having developed his coaching chops under the wing of Peter ‘Peter Dun’ Dun while MAD originally operated as Splyce, 2023 marks Mac’s sixth year in the LEC as a coach, and his fourth as the mastermind behind MAD. In his time at the helm so far, Mac’s taken his pride of lions to three World Championships, a Mid-Season Invitational, and secured back-to-back LEC titles in 2021. Needless to say, it’s unsurprising that the organisation has let him cook for so long.
As we move towards the meat of the split – the long-awaited best-of series – we sit down with Mac to talk everything MAD. In this extensive interview, we pick the Brit’s brain about the culture he and his staff are trying to instil in the organisation, recreating that ‘MAD Magic’, how the team has been performing in the LEC so far this year, and how MAD’s planning to get its claws into the upcoming Group Stage.
The Loadout: Mac, thank you so much for joining me. How have these first few weeks been?
Mac: Intense, it’s really strange because it doesn’t feel like three weeks, it feels like we’ve been competing forever. Normally at this point we’d be less than halfway through the Regular Season, and now it’s like, ‘you’ve played nine games, you’ve played everyone this split, onto Bo3’s!’ It comes on so fast. It’s only 50% more games, but it’s 50% more days of competition.
You’re literally speedrunning the LEC at this point, which I guess is the intent with the three-split setup. How are you finding adjusting to the format?
From an internal team perspective, it’s a big challenge making sure that we are keeping up, making sure that we’re adapting, making sure that we’re working on ourselves, and making sure that we’re making time – we have way less time this year. We have to up our scrim schedule in order to make up for the additional day of practice lost, which means we have less time for everything else. So we have less time to watch VODs, less time to review stuff, less time to do one-to-ones with players, less time to go to the gym – all the stuff that we do that’s really important to us.
On the other hand, I think it’s an awesome format for making the games feel important, and for actually stress testing us earlier. In the last format, we wouldn’t play a Bo5 for another, what, six weeks? That’s a long time away. And now I get to see what Kim ‘Chasy’ Dong-hyeon is like in a Bo3 in one week.
We’ve not been in a particularly stressful position. But I get to see what our players look like when they’re competing for first place. Or in another scenario, I would get to see what our players look like when they’re under the pressure of potentially missing top eight. And that’s really valuable information, so I think stress testing players earlier is a big plus for me.
And the MSI second seeding adds to those stakes, too. When that announcement was originally made, did that alter the way you prepared coming into the split?
I think it definitely did change my mindset. I think that the coaches and the organisation will almost always have a slightly different mindset to the players. As a player, you want to win, and you want to win now. [As a coach] you tend to try to have a more eagle eye view of, like, ‘what are our chances of winning within the next two years? Where are we in the process right now? How is the model working? What do we need to adapt next year? What pieces do we have in place? And what do we need to be more likely to succeed in the future?’ So I have a bit of a longer term perspective on it.
Our approach within the team – the narrative that we set for ourselves – is we want to be the best. And I don’t care when that comes, I don’t care about putting a timeline on it, I don’t care about putting results on it and saying ‘we need to beat this team, we need to beat that team.’ I care about the steps that we’re taking to get better every day – ‘how do we have the best practice environment? How do we have the best culture? How do we have the most healthy discussions? How can we have the best preparation for draft? How do we have the best scouting for level ones?’ It’s just making sure that the processes are all good.
Going back to the MSI seeding, it is exciting to think that you could lock a spot in Winter. It was something that we spoke to Riot about when it was thinking about changing it to two slots. So we were aware that it was a possibility. It’s cool to think that, if we locked a spot, it’s something that my family and friends could plan around. My family and friends are often asking me like, ‘oh, when are you gonna be home? Oh, when is your tournament? Oh, when can I visit you?’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know, bro!’
It’s really nice that League is finally coming home [to London]! You’ve just mentioned what it means personally for you to potentially play a LAN on home soil, but what does it mean professionally?
So actually, a lot of the success in my career has been during the COVID stages. I was on a big stage in 2019 when we made Worlds with Splyce, and that was incredible because the whole crowd in Madrid was going crazy for us. It had also just been leaked that we were changing to MAD Lions as well, so there was extra Spanish hype around us which was amazing.
But I wasn’t in the driver’s seat. I wasn’t the head coach, back then I was just kind of tagging along. So, when we made Worlds in 2020 and 2021 [there was no crowd]. And then we didn’t make it to the New York stage at Worlds 2022, so I haven’t gotten to be on this huge stage. The crowd in Mexico was insane, but it was a small crowd. I’ve not felt the earth shaking from the vibration of the crowd since 2019. And that’s something that, professionally, I desperately want to experience. So being able to have that in London, which is like an hour away from where I live, where all my friends and family can come and be there to support me would be the cherry on top.
If you do lock your spot, are there certain aspects of British culture that you’d want the boys to experience during MSI?
That’s a good question… Honestly, a Sunday roast would be a banger.
One place that I genuinely really want to take them to is Anfield to see Liverpool play. Because Liverpool has something that I’m really inspired by as a club, which is this amazing history of togetherness – ‘You’ll Never Walk Alone’ – and the atmosphere and the way that people come together around Liverpool as a club. I think that’s something that I really want to show the players, and it’s something that I really want to aim for as a coach at MAD Lions.
[Mac points towards the wall behind him, which is adorned with team photos from across the years, including those from when MAD operated as Splyce] You can see behind me here there are these pictures of every single roster we’ve ever had. When players join MAD, I bring them into this room and I’m like, ‘that’s your lineage, that’s your ancestry – you’re part of something bigger.’ And that’s something that I think a lot of successful teams in conventional sports have managed to create – this feeling of belonging, of creating a home or an ‘us’ story that I would really like to be able to create in esports, because I don’t think anyone’s done it yet apart from maybe G2.
What you said about Liverpool is definitely something I’m noticing more and more with my club, Arsenal, at the minute! Thinking about culture and the process of instilling it in an esports context, I can imagine it’s difficult because esports moves so fast compared to traditional sports. MAD’s had massive changes coming into this season, both on the Rift and off of it, so whereabouts in that process do you feel you are at the minute, and how do these kinds of changes affect the way you approach it?
This year was a really strange year in terms of offseason. Things were kind of wild in the offseason – they always are. But things really didn’t go the way we expected. I think at the end of last year, we kind of took a step back and were like: ‘This roster is fine. It’s a good roster – we made Worlds – we had fun together this year, but we had more potential. We could have had a much better run at Worlds, but it was ultimately a disappointing experience. We would have hoped to at least make the Group Stage of Worlds, so we were disappointed in ourselves in that regard.
But I think, [considering] more than just the immediate result, we felt that we wanted to take a step back and actually take a breath of fresh air and turn over a new page almost in the same way that we did with Splyce between 2019 and 2020. Now I can see why people would be like, ‘you signed four rookies in 2020, in 2023 you signed a bunch of veterans.’ But getting Zdravets ‘Hylissang’ Galabov into the team, getting Matyáš ‘Carzzy’ Orsag back to the team, and adding Chasy in the top lane… This is the new face of MAD for the long term, that’s the way that we saw it.
We want Carzzy and Hylissang to be players that build the culture at MAD over the long term. They’re players that we feel fit really well with our values and our culture and the type of atmosphere that we want to create. And so they’re players that, for me, are long term pieces for us for the next chapter in the MAD story. And Chasy is the absolute same. Could we have kept Irfan ‘Armut’ Tükek and been a great team? Yeah, for sure. Armut is a great player, and I love working with him. He’s amazing. He’s a great teammate. I have nothing but good things to say about Armut.
But we felt that with a player like Chasy, our team had an incredibly high long term ceiling. The kind of resolution that we took at the end of 2022 was: ‘ok, let’s actually start aiming to be competitive internationally, let’s make a roster where we can have the culture we want. And we can have the ceiling that we want, where the aim is not just to be good in Europe – the aim is to eventually be the best full stop. And I think this iteration of the MAD roster is the first step in that process.
The reason I compare it to 2020 is because that was a similar process for us in that we kind of felt like Splyce up until then had been, you know, ‘we’re happy to qualify for Worlds and do well in Europe.’ And 2020 was the first time we were like, ‘ok, well actually, let’s start aiming to be the best of Europe. Let’s start aiming to be number one full stop.’ And so the mentality that we went into 2020 with was, ‘ok, let’s hire rookies that we think have the potential to be better than their opposing members on G2 in a year or two, and see where we go from there.’ So I think they’re analogous in that sense.
Digging into what actually constitutes MAD’s culture a bit more, what is that long term vision for MAD? And aside from bringing in players like Chasy, Carzzy, and Hyli, how else are you working to bring that to fruition?
In terms of broad general values that we can talk about, I think having fun is a huge one – that’s number one that we think is so important. I have a lot of memories of being on Splyce and being super stressed with the team atmosphere being really tense, and looking across the stage at G2 and just seeing them laughing and having fun. That was a big takeaway for me, that teams do better when they have fun.
I think I already kind of mentioned the sense of belonging that I want to create – that’s also a huge one for me.
And the final one is that there’s a lovely quote, which I think Patrick ‘Pad’ Suckow-Breum introduced me to, that has inspired a lot of us at MAD: dream big, act accordingly. We want to set the ambition of being the absolute best. And we want to break that down into as many plausible, easily doable, feasible steps that require discipline, and hard work, and a good mentality, and just do those steps every single day and get better every single day. The long term goal is to be the best in the world.
The execution of that every single day, like I said to you earlier is, ‘how do we have better scrim practice? How do we have better drafts in scrims? How do we have the best processes possible for literally everything and coming into work?’ And making each week feel like, ‘ok, we did this? Well, great. What’s the next step? What’s the next thing that can be 1% better?’
It definitely feels like some of the fun, some of that MAD magic is back this year. I’ve always associated MAD with being very electric – very much a lightning in a bottle type vibe with that controlled, yet chaotic element. With players like Carzzy and Hyli it definitely feels like that identity is coming back – not to say you were without an identity last year, but it definitely feels more akin to what we perhaps saw prior to 2022.
Absolutely. I like to say that I like working with psychos. Our players last year were all lovely, and I have nothing but good things to say about them. But how many people could compare to Carzzy in psychopathy? I joke – psycho is a bit of a strange word to use – but I love working with players who have no fear, and will take the moments where they can literally save a game that is slowly going down the drain by flashing in 1v3. Carzzy and Hylissang exemplify that.
Coming back to the LEC itself, we’ve definitely had some surprises in the Regular Season. It’s been a bit of a Brexit angle with Excel and Fnatic going out, while BDS and SK have turned up in a big way. How much of what we’ve seen on-stage has aligned with what you’ve seen, be it in scrims (even though they’re often seen as false data) or elsewhere?
I’d say scrims have been very different to stage this year. I mean they usually are, especially at the beginning of the year, and as you get towards summer things tend to balance out – people kind of get their shit together. A lot of teams do random cheesy stuff in scrims that just doesn’t work on stage, so it takes you a few months to realise that every time you play against X team, they cheese three men in bot bush on every single wave they possibly can. And if you don’t die to it, then they’re going to lose the game. But these things tend to work in scrims for a lot longer than they work on stage. So there’s stuff like that.
I would say SK has been… it’s funny because coming into the split, I thought, ‘SK is gonna be a good team.’ I think they have a lot of good players. I think Joel ‘Irrelevant’ Miro Scharoll and Mark ‘Markoon’ van Woensel were great pickups. I think Thomas ‘Exakick’ Foucou has a shit-ton of potential. Daniel ‘Sertuss’ Gamani was already performing really well last year. And Mads ‘Doss’ Schwartz I didn’t really know that much about. But then in scrims and on stage we were kinda ‘eh’ about SK, because we played them in the first week and they kind of rolled over and died. But their stage play has been really solid, so props to them.
There were loads of scrim rumours about Astralis being scrim gods, and then they weren’t which is classic scrim god narrative. BDS has been the big surprise for me. I think Adam ‘Adam’ Maanane has been completely popping off, and their bot lane has been doing way better than I expected as well. And Theo ‘Sheo’ Borile has had a super good transition to LEC.
You lot were on the unfortunate end of Adam’s Darius…
Yeah… I completely inted our draft against BDS, that was just on me. If you listen to our voice comms video, we basically decided to ban Renekton instead of Darius and we thought that it was maybe ok… it wasn’t ok. Watch the comms video, I’m like ‘yep, that’s the Darius’ when he locks it in because we’d discussed it already. And then it cuts to him chopping our heads off.
I can imagine everyone sort of turned to each other like ‘oh, come on!’
Yasin ‘Nisqy’ Dincer and Hyli had played on a team with him before. They just kind of looked at me like ‘are you sure, bro?’
But at least the players are holding the coach accountable…
Yeah, that was the first thing that I said. I walked offstage after that game and I was like, ‘guys, this is just my bad, you did a decent job. There are things we can do better. You had some good moments. This is just my bad.’
Having that humility, being able to take the L and move on is a really great trait to have as a coach, and I think it’s indicative of that MAD culture. I was talking to Carzzy the other day and he was singing the praises of you and the coaching staff. Hearing that players want to come back and play for you must be a really good feeling.
It’s lovely. It’s nice to hear it, and I think everyone is doing a really good job right now – players and staff – at setting high standards for ourselves, so I think there’s a lot of credit due to a lot of the guys.
In our match against G2 this weekend we did a level one bot push cheese – we slammed their bot lane in level one – and that’s just because Nicolaj ‘Achuu’ Ellesgaard had spent ages watching all their level ones and he told the bot lane exactly what to do. He went into a custom game with them beforehand, and showed them where to go and where to stand, and they murdered G2’s bot lane level one.
G2’s draft kind of didn’t function after that, because they were thinking they were getting bot prio and they didn’t, and then they had to adapt. So there’s a lot of stuff that’s going on behind the scenes that’s going really well. But yeah, having Carzzy back is lovely. We’ve always had a really close relationship, so it’s super nice to have him back.
Speaking of G2, I do want to dip a little bit more into the Group Stage. You’ve already spoken a little bit about Astralis and BDS in the Regular Season, but I do want to get your initial thoughts on your opponents in a group capacity.
It’s a really exciting group. I think there’s probably going to be a lot of spicy games from this group. BDS has its wonky kind-of-niche picks that other teams don’t, and it has a really specific style. G2 tends to have pretty exciting games, and Astralis has been bad in terms of results, but it’s been very close to winning a lot of games.
And then Astralis obviously had its Finn 1v9 50-man barrel performance, so I can imagine that it’ll have some pretty spicy games. I think Finn ‘Finn’ Wiestål and Doğukan ‘113’ Balcı are really explosive players, Lee ‘JeongHoon’ Jeong-hoon as well. Kasper ‘Kobbe’ Kobberup is a great, long-term consistent AD Carry who has been in the LEC since 2016. This is his eighth year in the LEC, which is actually insane to think about so props to him. So yeah, I think Astralis is not to be underestimated.
I definitely feel like Astralis gets a bad time based on its results historically, when actually this roster seems like a bit of a sleeping tiger. What are your thoughts on that?
I mean we had to choose between Astralis and BDS [to face first]. That was actually a really tough decision. I’m still not sure if we made the right decision – I guess we’ll find out.
In your game against G2 it played a very different draft to what we’ve been used to seeing so far this year. What has the preparation been like going into a best-of series against a team where you have to sort of Doctor Strange it and account for 14 million possibilities?
With those types of scenarios, we don’t care too much about drafts to be honest with you. When we approach a team, we have an overall structure of what’s important against them – ‘is it important that we have mid priority in this game?’ ‘Is it important that we have a winning jungle matchup in this game?’ And as long as we’re within that structure, we’re fine. The picks themselves are less important than how they enable the specific players that are playing them.
G2 has a fairly consistent formula that it’s been winning games with and looking good with. So our main aim is to make sure that it doesn’t get to replicate that formula over and over again, like most teams have. All players have unconscious patterns or strengths – things that they’re really, really good at and doing consistently. If you can take those crutches away they tend to fall down. So that’s kind of the way that our preparation looks in terms of mindset for G2.
I think, from the Bo1, we can’t take much away because it was a really weird game. Like I said, their bot lane matchup got really heavily disrupted at level one, and it was a really weird matchup in a really weird draft. But, I think Carzzy and Hyli have been doing a really insane job recently. There’s still a lot to improve on in terms of laning. But overall, I think the way that they’re kind of controlling the map, the way that they’re moving for the team, the way that they are involving themselves in the game, the way that they’re team fighting, they’ve both been really stellar in those regards.
Definitely. And thinking about the other players, Nisqy got his first career penta on Sylas, Javier ‘Elyoya’ Prades Batalla is top five for KDA-
His KDA on Sejuani is currently 45.
It’s kind of disgusting. And then of course Chasy is slotting in nicely. Thinking firstly about Nisqy, I feel like this is the best iteration of him I’ve seen in some time, possibly ever. Obviously he was MVP back in Summer 2022, but I feel like he is continuing to grow and evolve. As a coach, I can imagine this is exactly what you want to see?
I think that’s the big story from this guy. He’s always been a player that has had his really strong comfort and his really big strengths. And he’s been quite specialised as a player. Coming out of last year, he kind of decided that he was going to break the mould on that one and change the narrative, and he’s put in so much work to make sure that he can expand his champion pool, become a better laner; become a bigger mid-to-late game carry; become a more consistent carry threat; be able to to play multiple play styles between low risk high consistency and explosiveness, high reward. Those are the two styles that he’s now trying to switch between regularly rather than committing all into one. And I think that’s showing up really well.
He’s put in a lot of work even in the offseason. We were having a discussion in the offseason and he was saying to me, ‘if I stay on MAD, then I’m going to be able to play this, this, and this by the end of the offseason for sure – day one of scrims I will be ready’, which was amazing. So huge credit to him. But it’s also a huge credit to Zef, who’s done an incredible job with him so far at helping him to find all the little patterns and little tricks, and adapting his mindset towards being a more consistent player, like a high resource player when he’s needed to be and stuff like that. So I think Nisqy’s doing a really good job of being able to play high resource and low resource right now.
Props to him. As for Elyoya, at Worlds there was more of a carry impetus on him with stuff like the Bel’Veth, and now he’s back to playing more supportive junglers. Having just mentioned how well he’s piloting the Sejuani at the minute, do you feel these champs are where his best qualities lie?
He’s pretty good at both styles. I feel like he has a switch in his head that he flicks between like, ‘I am killing the enemy jungler’ or ‘I am killing all of his laners’. And I think he’s very good at flipping between those two modes. He’s done a great job at adapting to the kind of supportive jungle meta. I think, initially, it took some time to get out of the ‘I will stomp the enemy jungler’ mindset. But he’s picked it up really well. So full credit to him.
And finally, Chasy. You were saying earlier that he has an exceptionally high ceiling and is going to be a key piece in the long run. What is it about Chasy that you initially saw that made you go, ‘yeah, I need this guy on my team’? And how has he been getting on so far with his English and everything?
I think Chasy’s number one quality when we looked at him is that he’s exceptionally smart. He is a really, really fast learner, and looking at him he did stuff that normally I don’t see rookie players do until they’ve been taught to do it by someone in the LEC, or got smacked by an enemy toplaner doing it. His wave control, his ward timing; his map openings; when he chooses to fog; when he chooses to come through mid, all of these things were naturally at a very high level just from him being really smart while playing in the ERLs. So that was a big thing.
The other thing is that I listened to a lot of his comms when he was on X7… no one’s telling him to do it. He’s not talking about stuff like what he’s doing with his solo laners. He was playing with Kang ‘Tempt’ Myung-gu back then, and the way that they moved was really coordinated. And if you looked at it [the VODs] without comms, you would be sure that they were talking to each other about it. But they weren’t, they were just really in sync with each other. And that’s something that he’s brought to MAD as well – he’s really good at being in sync with the team.
Even though, initially, his understanding of English was not good, he’s an incredibly fast learner, and he’s improving so fast. I’ve been so impressed with his English already, and he’s really dedicated to it as well. After boot camp, he had a really good experience with the team, and all the players have done a great job at making sure that he’s included, making sure that he understands everything, and making sure that he’s part of the team – he has fun, he feels at home.
As soon as he was shown that and realised, ‘holy crap, my teammates are really lovely’, he came to me and was like, ‘I want to do more English lessons, I want two more English lessons a week please during the offseason. After boot camp he was grinding English perma. Throughout the whole boot camp, I didn’t see him do anything but watch League of Legends or watch English learning videos. So his English has gotten way, way, way better.
He’s settling in really well. Long term there will of course be difficulties for him like getting homesick and missing Korean food. It can also be really overwhelming to speak a foreign language all day, every day and not speak your native tongue – I understand that one. So there are for sure challenges, but right now I think he’s doing an exceptional job for a rookie a million miles from home.
That’s really incredible to hear, and it definitely feels like everyone’s slotting into place nicely and elevating each other this year. Speaking to other players and coaches throughout the Regular Season, that togetherness seems to be a driving force for a lot of teams that are finding success in the LEC so far. At Worlds we saw it with DRX as well – a team playing for each other that ended up being better than the sum of its parts.
My final question, then, is to what extent do you feel this impacts teams? How much does the culture, the team building exercises, and everything else really affect what we see on stage?
You mentioned the MAD magic earlier – I think that’s the magic. It’s not the draft, or the game understanding, or any of the other stuff. It’s the tiny 1% differences that we make in players feeling like they belong here. Players trusting each other. Players being happy. Players having fun.
I’ve been so proud of the way that all the players have risen to the challenge of getting Chasy into the team because it’s hard – it’s really difficult. You have a completely different culture, completely different expectations of what’s normal, how to communicate when you communicate, just completely different understandings of the game.
So I think that’s been incredible, and it’s creating an ‘us’ story. It’s creating the model of who we are as a team, the type of people that we are, and how we get the best out of each other. To me that’s the ‘MAD magic’. And that’s what leadership is right? We do a monthly leadership check in with most of our players, and we try to make them into better leaders. I stress with them repeatedly that leadership is not telling people what to do, or being this authoritarian figure – not for me, at least. I’m not like that at all. For me, leadership is making your teammates better.
Anything that you do that makes your teammates better – 1% better – that’s leadership. And if you can come to work and do that every single day, then you’re going to be a fucking good team by the end of the year.